There was a twinkle in Philippe Montanier’s eye. “What do you want to know?
You know everything,” he said when there was a brief pause before the waiting journalists asked him a question, following Nottingham Forest’s 4-3 win over Burton on Saturday.
Anyone can afford to be jovial after a home win but there already seems a confidence and assurance to the new Forest manager one competitive game into his tenure. In his press conference, when he was not lightly ribbing the interpreter he occasionally uses but does not really need, the Frenchman admitted this was a victory “with difficulties” and there was plenty to work on, a mild weakness of the kind new managers might not usually reveal.
His confidence was also shown in the team he selected, an XI which could fairly be described as absurdly young. The 10 outfield players had an average age of 21.8 years, featured five academy products, three teenagers and only two players over 23. Two of those , Matty Cash and Alex Iacovitti, were making their senior debuts. The old man of the group, Matt Mills, turned 30 in July. The next oldest was Henri Lansbury, who is 25.
It was a fairly remarkable selection and not without risks but one that might buy the manager a little extra goodwill with which to start his tenure. His suggestion last week that youngsters would have a big role to play in the season might have sounded like a man placating the locals but, as it turned out, he was not kidding.
These are the latest products of what has been a rich stream of talent and money for Forest. Iacovitti and Cash were the 44th and 45th graduates of the club’s academy to start for their first team since its establishment in 1997. Some have briefly appeared and quickly disappeared but others have formed key parts of the team for years and some have gone on to bigger and brighter things. David Prutton and Gareth Williams, the first two graduates from the academy, graduated to the Premier League while others have included Jermaine Jenas, Michael Dawson, Andy Reid, Jamaal Lascelles, Patrick Bamford, Karl Darlow and, of course, Wes Morgan.
The best footballer of the current group is Ben Osborn, an impish midfielder turned winger to whom the ball seems to stick and has been a first-team regular for a couple of seasons, but the most exciting may be Oliver Burke. At 6ft 2in and with a chest almost as broad, Burke has the pace of a 100m runner, which must make the sight of him belting down the right wing a particularly trauma-inducing sight for any left-back. The 19-year-old was called up to the senior Scotland squad last month and, while he is raw, his touch and decision-making already seem to have improved since last season. Two of Forest’s goals on Saturday were indirectly created by Burke causing havoc on the flank and, for a team that struggled in attack last season, his contributions will be vital.
Selling youth products is an economically prudent, if rather unromantic way of doing things, and the funds brought in by a few of those players – most recently Lascelles and Darlow to Newcastle – have proved valuable. But to the fans they have a much more important role, providing a sense of pride and connection to those on the pitch. Forest, often a mess and even an embarrassment in recent years, anything to which they can cling for a bit of pride and enthusiasm is to be welcomed.
Such a significant group starting in one game will probably not be repeated too many times through the season. A couple of those inclusions were because of fitness problems with more senior players, but Osborn, Burke and possibly Jorge Grant, another midfielder, will be part of the first team for the foreseeable future, as may be Tyler Walker (son of Des), who was absent on Saturday. It would have been very easy for Montanier, new to the club and country, to shy away from youngsters but it speaks volumes for the quality of those players, and the work done by the academy manager, Gary Brazil, that he felt confident enough to include all of them against Burton.
This summer Reid, arguably the most beloved of Forest’s modern youth products and in his second spell with the club, finally gave in and retired, nearly two years since he last played a first-team game after a persistent groin injury refused to heal. There was a certain symbolism in such a promising collection of youngsters representing the team a few weeks later.
• Speaking of young players, there was a rare sight during QPR’s 3-0 win over Leeds on Sunday. Olamide Shodipo was a constant threat in the first half, direct and impressive down the left with a couple of fine deliveries into the box, but his involvement was significant if only because he was a youth product, something virtually unheard of at Loftus Road. The odd one or two have briefly appeared in the interim but the last first-team regular to come through the ranks was Richard Langley, who made his debut in 1999. “The last player – and that was 16 years ago. That cannot be right,” said QPR’s director of football, Les Ferdinand, last year and there certainly seems more of a focus – perhaps partly out of financial necessity – on youth now. If Shodipo can deliver on some of his promise, that barren run might come to an end.
• Nothing says welcome to the Championship like losing to a Matt Smith header from a set piece. Rafa Benítez will be used to people telling him that life in the second tier will be tough for Newcastle but perhaps a bigger short-term challenge will be knitting his new team together. There were five summer signings in his team for the defeat by Fulham on Friday night, which did not include Jesús Gámez and Mohamed Diamé, with more to come. Once this team clicks, then all logic says they should win promotion by a healthy margin. Until then they might have to endure a few more nights like Friday.
• The Jack Grealish curse continues, admittedly largely because he has played in an awful team. Aston Villa’s defeat by Sheffield Wednesday stretched to 19 the run of league games he has appeared in which have ended in defeat. Perhaps he needs to be exorcised.
• Life does not get much brighter for Charlton. After a few years of calamity under Roland Duchâtelet, their inevitable relegation to League One came last season, as did the stripping of assets like Stephen Henderson and the excellent Jordan Cousins. They lost their first game of the new campaign, 2-0 at Bury, then after the game some players appeared to become involved in what we’ll call a “frank exchange of views” with fans. It was probably not the greatest PR move but, then again, what does one expect from today’s Charlton.
• Another basket case club made a more positive start. Karl Oyston is not going to win the freedom of Blackpool any time soon but things do seem to be changing a little at Bloomfield Road. This summer they actually signed a few players in good time and have a manager, Gary Bowyer, willing to talk to the press. This more conciliatory tone was followed by a win in their League Two opener, as they beat Exeter City 2-0 and thus recorded their sixth victory of 2016. Baby steps …
• This is the first in a new series of weekly Monday Football League blogs
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